Immediate Effect of Christianity on Articles of Popular Superstition--Chaucer's Account of the Roman Catholic Priests banishing the Fairies--Bishop Corbett imputes the same Effect to the Reformation--His Verses on that Subject--His Iter Septentrionale--Robin Goodfellow and other Superstitions mentioned by Reginald Scot--Character of the English Fairies--The Tradition had become obsolete in that Author's Time--That of Witches remained in vigour--But impugned by various Authors after the Reformation, as Wierus, Naudĉus, Scot, and others--Demonology defended by Bodinus, Remigius, &c.--Their mutual Abuse of each other--Imperfection of Physical Science at this Period, and the Predominance of Mysticism in that Department.
Although the influence of the Christian religion was not introduced to the nations of Europe with such radiance as to dispel at once those clouds of superstition which continued to obscure the understanding of hasty and ill-instructed converts, there can be no doubt that its immediate operation went to modify the erroneous and extravagant articles of credulity which lingered behind the old pagan faith, and which gave way before it, in proportion as its light became more pure and refined from the devices of men.
The poet Chaucer, indeed, pays the Church of Rome, with its monks and preaching friars, the compliment of having, at an early period, expelled from the land all spirits of an inferior and less holy character. The verses are curious as well as picturesque, and may go some length to establish the existence of doubts concerning the general belief in fairies among the well-instructed in the time of Edward III.
The fairies of whom the bard of Woodstock talks are, it will be observed, the ancient Celtic breed, and he seems to refer for the authorities of his tale to Bretagne, or Armorica, a genuine Celtic colony:--
"In old time of the King Artour, Of which that Bretons speken great honour, All was this land fulfilled of faerie; The Elf queen, with her joly company, Danced full oft in many a grene mead. This was the old opinion, as I rede-- I speake of many hundred years ago, But now can no man see no elves mo. For now the great charity and prayers Of limitours, and other holy freres, That searchen every land and every stream, As thick as motes in the sunne-beam, Blessing halls, chambers, kitchenes, and boures, Cities and burghes, castles high and towers, Thropes and barnes, sheep-pens and dairies, This maketh that there ben no fairies. For there as wont to walken was an elf, There walketh now the limitour himself, In under nichtes and in morwenings, And saith his mattins and his holy things, As he goeth in his limitation. Women may now go safely up and doun; In every bush, and under every tree, There is no other incubus than he, And he ne will don them no dishonour."
[Footnote 40: "Wife of Bath's Tale."]
When we see the opinion which Chaucer has expressed of the regular clergy of his time, in some of his other tales, we are tempted to suspect some mixture of irony in the compliment which ascribes the exile of the fairies, with whih the land was "fulfilled" in King Arthur's time, to the warmth and zeal of the devotion of the limitary friars. Individual instances of scepticism there might exist among scholars, but a more modern poet, with a vein of humour not unworthy of Geoffrey himself, has with greater probability delayed the final banishment of the fairies from England, that is, from popular faith, till the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and has represented their expulsion as a consequence of the change of religion. Two or three verses of this lively satire may be very well worth the reader's notice, who must, at the same time, be informed that the author, Dr. Corbett, was nothing less than the Bishop of Oxford and Norwich in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The poem is named "A proper new Ballad, entitled the Fairies' Farewell, to be sung or whistled to the tune of the Meadow Brow by the learned; by the unlearned to the tune of Fortune:"--
"Farewell, rewards and fairies, Good housewives now may say, For now foul sluts in dairies Do fare as well as they; And though they sweep their hearths no less Than maids were wont to do, Yet who of late for cleanliness Finds sixpence in her shoe?
"Lament, lament, old abbies, The fairies' lost command; They did but change priests' babies, But some have changed your land; And all your children sprung from hence Are now grown Puritans, Who live as changelings ever since For love of your domains.
"At morning and at evening both, You merry were and glad, So little care of sleep and sloth Those pretty ladies had. When Tom came home from labour. Or Cis to milking rose, Then merrily, merrily went their tabor, And merrily went their toes.
"Witness those rings and roundelays Of theirs, which yet remain, Were footed, in Queen Mary's days, On many a grassy plain; But since of late Elizabeth, And later James came in, They never danced on any heath As when the time hath bin.
"By which we note, the fairies Were of the old profession, Their songs were Ave Maries, Their dances were procession. But now, alas! they all are dead, Or gone beyond the seas; Or farther for religion fled, Or else they take their ease."
"To William all give audience, And pray ye for his noddle, For all the fairies' evidence Were lost if that were addle."
This William Chourne appears to have attended Dr. Corbett's party on the _iter septentrionale_, "two of which were, and two desired to be, doctors;" but whether William was guide, friend, or domestic seems uncertain. The travellers lose themselves in the mazes of Chorley Forest on their way to Bosworth, and their route becomes so confused that they return on their steps and labour--
"As in a conjuror's circle--William found A mean for our deliverance,--'Turn your cloaks,' Quoth he, 'for Puck is busy in these oaks; If ever you at Bosworth would be found, Then turn your cloaks, for this is fairy ground.' But ere this witchcraft was performed, we meet A very man who had no cloven feet. Though William, still of little faith, has doubt, 'Tis Robin, or some sprite that walks about. 'Strike him,' quoth he, 'and it will turn to air-- Cross yourselves thrice and strike it.'--'Strike that dare,' Thought I, 'for sure this massy forester, In strokes will prove the better conjuror.' But 'twas a gentle keeper, one that knew Humanity and manners, where they grew, And rode along so far, till he could say, 'See, yonder Bosworth stands, and this your way.'"
In this passage the bishop plainly shows the fairies maintained their influence in William's imagination, since the courteous keeper was mistaken by their associate champion for Puck or Robin Goodfellow. The spells resorted to to get rid of his supposed delusions are alternatively that of turning the cloak--(recommended in visions of the second-sight or similar illusions as a means of obtaining a certainty concerning the being which is before imperfectly seen)--and that of exorcising the spirit with a cudgel; which last, Corbett prudently thinks, ought not to be resorted to unless under an absolute conviction that the exorcist is the stronger party. Chaucer, therefore, could not be serious in averring that the fairy superstitions were obsolete in his day, since they were found current three centuries afterwards.
[Footnote 43: A common instance is that of a person haunted with a resemblance whose face he cannot see. If he turn his cloak or plaid, he will obtain the full sight which he desires, and may probably find it to be his own fetch, or wraith, or double-ganger.]
It is not the less certain that, as knowledge and religion became more widely and brightly displayed over any country, the superstitious fancies of the people sunk gradually in esteem and influence; and in the time of Queen Elizabeth the unceasing labour of many and popular preachers, who declaimed against the "splendid miracles" of the Church of Rome, produced also its natural effect upon the other stock of superstitions. "Certainly," said Reginald Scot, talking of times before his own, "some one knave in a white sheet hath cozened and abused many thousands, specially when Robin Goodfellow kept such a coil in the country. In our childhood our mothers' maids have so terrified us with an ugly devil having horns on his head, fire in his mouth, and a tail at his breech; eyes like a basin, fangs like a dog, claws like a bear, a skin like a negro, and a voice roaring like a lion, whereby we start and are afraid when we hear one cry, Boh! and they have so frayd us with bull-beggars, spirits, witches, urchins, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, Pans, faunes, sylvans, Kitt-with-the-candlestick, tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, imps, calcars, conjurers, nymphs, changelings, incubus, Robin Goodfellow, the spoorn, the man-in-the-oak, the hellwain, the fire-drake, the puckle, Tom Thumb, Hobgoblin, Tom Tumbler, Boneless, and such other bugbears, that we are afraid of our own shadows, insomuch that some never fear the devil but on a dark night; and then a polled sheep is a perilous beast, and many times is taken for our father's soul, specially in a churchyard, where a right hardy man heretofore durst not to have passed by night but his hair would stand upright. Well, thanks be to God, this wretched and cowardly infidelity, since the preaching of the Gospel, is in part forgotten, and doubtless the rest of these illusions will in a short time, by God's grace, be detected and vanish away."
[Footnote 44: Reginald Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," book vii. chap. 15.]
It would require a better demonologist than I am to explain the various obsolete superstitions which Reginald Scot has introduced as articles of the old English faith, into the preceding passage. I might indeed say the Phuca is a Celtic superstition, from which the word Pook or Puckle was doubtless derived; and I might conjecture that the man-in-the-oak was the same with the Erl-König of the Germans; and that the hellwain were a kind of wandering spirits, the descendants of a champion named Hellequin, who are introduced into the romance of Richard sans Peur. But most antiquaries will be at fault concerning the spoorn, Kitt-with-the-candlestick, Boneless, and some others. The catalogue, however, serves to show what progress the English have made in two centuries, in forgetting the very names of objects which had been the sources of terror to their ancestors of the Elizabethan age.
Before leaving the subject of fairy superstition in England we may remark that it was of a more playful and gentle, less wild and necromantic character, than that received among the sister people. The amusements of the southern fairies were light and sportive; their resentments were satisfied with pinching or scratching the objects of their displeasure; their peculiar sense of cleanliness rewarded the housewives with the silver token in the shoe; their nicety was extreme concerning any coarseness or negligence which could offend their delicacy; and I cannot discern, except, perhaps, from the insinuations of some scrupulous divines, that they were vassals to or in close alliance with the infernals, as there is too much reason to believe was the case with their North British sisterhood. The common nursery story cannot be forgotten, how, shortly after the death of what is called a nice tidy housewife, the Elfin band was shocked to see that a person of different character, with whom the widower had filled his deserted arms, instead of the nicely arranged little loaf of the whitest bread, and a basin of sweet cream, duly placed for their refreshment by the deceased, had substituted a brown loaf and a cobb of herrings. Incensed at such a coarse regale, the elves dragged the peccant housewife out of bed, and pulled her down the wooden stairs by the heels, repeating, at the same time, in scorn of her churlish hospitality--
"Brown bread and herring cobb! Thy fat sides shall have many a bob!"
[Footnote 45: Dr. Jackson, in his "Treatise on Unbelief," opines for the severe opinion. "Thus are the Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both; seeking sometimes to be feared, otherwhiles to be loued as God, for the bodily harmes or good turnes supposed to be in his power."--Jackson on Unbelief, p. 178, edit. 1625.]
The constant attendant upon the English Fairy court was the celebrated Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, who to the elves acted in some measure as the jester or clown of the company--(a character then to be found in the establishment of every person of quality)--or to use a more modern comparison, resembled the Pierrot of the pantomime. His jests were of the most simple and at the same time the broadest comic character--to mislead a clown on his path homeward, to disguise himself like a stool, in order to induce an old gossip to commit the egregious mistake of sitting down on the floor when she expected to repose on a chair, were his special enjoyments. If he condescended to do some work for the sleeping family, in which he had some resemblance to the Scottish household spirit called a Brownie, the selfish Puck was far from practising this labour on the disinterested principle of the northern goblin, who, if raiment or food was left in his way and for his use, departed from the family in displeasure. Robin Goodfellow, on the contrary, must have both his food and his rest, as Milton informs us, amid his other notices of country superstitions, in the poem of L'Allegro. And it is to be noticed that he represents these tales of the fairies, told round the cottage hearth, as of a cheerful rather than a serious cast; which illustrates what I have said concerning the milder character of the southern superstitions, as compared with those of the same class in Scotland--the stories of which are for the most part of a frightful and not seldom of a disgusting quality.
Poor Robin, however, between whom and King Oberon Shakespeare contrives to keep a degree of distinct subordination, which for a moment deceives us by its appearance of reality, notwithstanding his turn for wit and humour, had been obscured by oblivion even in the days of Queen Bess. We have already seen, in a passage quoted from Reginald Scot, that the belief was fallen into abeyance; that which follows from the same author affirms more positively that Robin's date was over:--
"Know ye this, by the way, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible, and also as credible, to the people as hags and witches be now; and in time to come a witch will be as much derided and condemned, and as clearly perceived, as the illusion and knavery of Robin Goodfellow, upon whom there have gone as many and as credible tales as witchcraft, saving that it hath not pleased the translators of the Bible to call spirits by the name of Robin Goodfellow, as they have diviners, soothsayers, poisoners, and cozeners by the name of witches." In the same tone Reginald Scot addresses the reader in the preface:--"To make a solemn suit to you that are partial readers to set aside partiality, to take in good part my writings, and with indifferent eyes to look upon my book, were labour lost and time ill-employed; for I should no more prevail herein than if, a hundred years since, I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been but a cozening merchant, and no devil indeed. But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared, and Popery is sufficiently discovered; nevertheless, witches' charms and conjurers' cozenage are yet effectual." This passage seems clearly to prove that the belief in Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions was now out of date; while that as to witchcraft, as was afterwards but too well shown, kept its ground against argument and controversy, and survived "to shed more blood."
[Footnote 46: Reginald Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," book vii. chap, ii.]
We are then to take leave of this fascinating article of the popular creed, having in it so much of interest to the imagination that we almost envy the credulity of those who, in the gentle moonlight of a summer night in England, amid the tangled glades of a deep forest, or the turfy swell of her romantic commons, could fancy they saw the fairies tracing their sportive ring. But it is in vain to regret illusions which, however engaging, must of necessity yield their place before the increase of knowledge, like shadows at the advance of morn. These superstitions have already survived their best and most useful purpose, having been embalmed in the poetry of Milton and of Shakespeare, as well as writers only inferior to these great names. Of Spenser we must say nothing, because in his "Faery Queen" the title is the only circumstance which connects his splendid allegory with the popular superstition, and, as he uses it, means nothing more than an Utopia or nameless country.
With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word _witch,_ being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;--to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.
Notwithstanding these specious reasons, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods when the revival of learning, the invention of printing, the fearless investigations of the Reformers into subjects thought formerly too sacred for consideration of any save the clergy, had introduced a system of doubt, enquiry, disregard of authority, when unsupported by argument, and unhesitating exercise of the private judgment, on subjects which had occupied the bulls of popes and decrees of councils. In short, the spirit of the age was little disposed to spare error, however venerable, or countenance imposture, however sanctioned by length of time and universal acquiescence. Learned writers arose in different countries to challenge the very existence of this imaginary crime, to rescue the reputation of the great men whose knowledge, superior to that of their age, had caused them to be suspected of magic, and to put a stop to the horrid superstition whose victims were the aged, ignorant, and defenceless, and which could only be compared to that which sent victims of old through the fire to Moloch.
The courageous interposition of those philosophers who opposed science and experience to the prejudices of superstition and ignorance, and in doing so incurred much misrepresentation, and perhaps no little ill-will, in the cause of truth and humanity, claim for them some distinction in a work on Demonology. The pursuers of exact science to its coy retreats, were sure to be the first to discover that the most remarkable phenomena in Nature are regulated by certain fixed laws, and cannot rationally be referred to supernatural agency, the sufficing cause to which superstition attributes all that is beyond her own narrow power of explanation. Each advance in natural knowledge teaches us that it is the pleasure of the Creator to govern the world by the laws which he has imposed, and which are not in our times interrupted or suspended.
The learned Wier, or Wierus, was a man of great research in physical science, and studied under the celebrated Cornelius Agrippa, against whom the charge of sorcery was repeatedly alleged by Paulus Jovius and other authors, while he suffered, on the other hand, from the persecution of the inquisitors of the Church, whose accusation against this celebrated man was, that he denied the existence of spirits, a charge very inconsistent with that of sorcery, which consists in corresponding with them. Wierus, after taking his degree as a doctor of medicine, became physician to the Duke of Cleves, at whose court he practised for thirty years with the highest reputation. This learned man, disregarding the scandal which, by so doing, he was likely to bring upon himself, was one of the first who attacked the vulgar belief, and boldly assailed, both by serious arguments and by ridicule, the vulgar credulity on the subject of wizards and witches.
Gabriel Naudé, or Naudĉus, as he termed himself, was a perfect scholar and man of letters, busied during his whole life with assembling books together, and enjoying the office of librarian to several persons of high rank, amongst others, to Queen Christina of Sweden. He was, besides, a beneficed clergyman, leading a most unblemished life, and so temperate as never to taste any liquor stronger than water; yet did he not escape the scandal which is usually flung by their prejudiced contemporaries upon those disputants whom it is found more easy to defame than to answer. He wrote an interesting work, entitled "Apologie pour les Grands Homines Accusés de Magie;" and as he exhibited a good deal of vivacity of talent, and an earnestness in pleading his cause, which did not always spare some of the superstitions of Rome herself, he was charged by his contemporaries as guilty of heresy and scepticism, when justice could only accuse him of an incautious eagerness to make good his argument.
Among persons who, upon this subject, purged their eyes with rue and euphrasie, besides the Rev. Dr. Harsnet and many others (who wrote rather on special cases of Demonology than on the general question), Reginald Scot ought to be distinguished. Webster assures us that he was a "person of competent learning, pious, and of a good family." He seems to have been a zealous Protestant, and much of his book, as well as that of Harsnet, is designed to throw upon the Papists in particular those tricks in which, by confederacy and imposture, the popular ideas concerning witchcraft, possession, and other supernatural fancies, were maintained and kept in exercise; but he also writes on the general question with some force and talent, considering that his subject is incapable of being reduced into a regular form, and is of a nature particularly seductive to an excursive talent. He appears to have studied legerdemain for the purpose of showing how much that is apparently unaccountable can nevertheless be performed without the intervention of supernatural assistance, even when it is impossible to persuade the vulgar that the devil has not been consulted on the occasion. Scot also had intercourse with some of the celebrated fortune-tellers, or Philomaths, of the time; one of whom he brings forward to declare the vanity of the science which he himself had once professed.
To defend the popular belief of witchcraft there arose a number of advocates, of whom Bodin and some others neither wanted knowledge nor powers of reasoning. They pressed the incredulous party with the charge that they denied the existence of a crime against which the law had denounced a capital punishment. As that law was understood to emanate from James himself, who was reigning monarch during the hottest part of the controversy, the English authors who defended the opposite side were obliged to entrench themselves under an evasion, to avoid maintaining an argument unpalatable to a degree to those in power, and which might perchance have proved unsafe to those who used it. With a certain degree of sophistry they answered that they did not doubt the possibility of witches, but only demurred to what is their nature, and how they came to be such--according to the scholastic jargon, that the question in respect to witches was not _de existentia_, but only _de modo existendi_.
By resorting to so subtle an argument those who impugned the popular belief were obliged, with some inconsistency, to grant that witchcraft had existed, and might exist, only insisting that it was a species of witchcraft consisting of they knew not what, but certainly of something different from that which legislators, judges, and juries had hitherto considered the statute as designed to repress.
In the meantime (the rather that the debate was on a subject particularly difficult of comprehension) the debating parties grew warm, and began to call names. Bodin, a lively Frenchman of an irritable habit, explained the zeal of Wierus to protect the tribe of sorcerers from punishment, by stating that he himself was a conjurer and the scholar of Cornelius Agrippa, and might therefore well desire to save the lives of those accused of the same league with Satan. Hence they threw on their antagonists the offensive names of witch-patrons and witch-advocates, as if it were impossible for any to hold the opinion of Naudĉus, Wierus, Scot, &c., without patronizing the devil and the witches against their brethren of mortality. Assailed by such heavy charges, the philosophers themselves lost patience, and retorted abuse in their turn, calling Bodin, Delrio, and others who used their arguments, witch-advocates, and the like, as the affirming and defending the existence of the crime seemed to increase the number of witches, and assuredly augmented the list of executions. But for a certain time the preponderance of the argument lay on the side of the Demonologists, and we may briefly observe the causes which gave their opinions, for a period, greater influence than their opponents on the public mind.
It is first to be observed that Wierus, for what reason cannot well be conjectured, except to show the extent of his cabalistical knowledge, had introduced into his work against witchcraft the whole Stenographia of Trithemius, which he had copied from the original in the library of Cornelius Agrippa; and which, suspicious from the place where he found it, and from the long catalogue of fiends which it contained, with the charms for raising and for binding them to the service of mortals, was considered by Bodin as containing proof that Wierus himself was a sorcerer; not one of the wisest, certainly, since he thus unnecessarily placed at the disposal of any who might buy the book the whole secrets which formed his stock-in-trade.
Secondly, we may notice that, from the state of physical science at the period when Van Helmont, Paracelsus, and others began to penetrate into its recesses, it was an unknown, obscure, and ill-defined region, and did not permit those who laboured in it to give that precise and accurate account of their discoveries which the progress of reasoning experimentally and from analysis has enabled the late discoverers to do with success. Natural magic--a phrase used to express those phenomena which could be produced by a knowledge of the properties of matter--had so much in it that was apparently uncombined and uncertain, that the art of chemistry was accounted mystical, and an opinion prevailed that the results now known to be the consequence of laws of matter, could not be traced through their various combinations even by those who knew the effects themselves. Physical science, in a word, was cumbered by a number of fanciful and incorrect opinions, chiefly of a mystical character. If, for instance, it was observed that a flag and a fern never grew near each other, the circumstance was imputed to some antipathy between these vegetables; nor was it for some time resolved by the natural rule, that the flag has its nourishment in marshy ground, whereas the fern loves a deep dryish soil. The attributes of the divining-rod were fully credited; the discovery of the philosopher's stone was daily hoped for; and electricity, magnetism, and other remarkable and misconceived phenomena were appealed to as proof of the reasonableness of their expectations. Until such phenomena were traced to their sources, imaginary and often mystical causes were assigned to them, for the same reason that, in the wilds of a partially discovered country, according to the satirist,
"Geographers on pathless downs Place elephants for want of towns."
Such were the obstacles arising from the vanity of philosophers and the imperfection of their science, which suspended the strength of their appeal to reason and common sense against the condemning of wretches to a cruel death on account of crimes which the nature of things rendered in modern times totally impossible. We cannot doubt that they suffered considerably in the contest, which was carried on with much anger and malevolence; but the good seed which they had sown remained uncorrupted in the soil, to bear fruit so soon as the circumstances should be altered which at first impeded its growth. In the next letter I shall take a view of the causes which helped to remove these impediments, in addition, it must always be remembered, to the general increase of knowledge and improvement of experimental philosophy.